Feasts & Fêtes

Toussaint holidays have just finished and the weather was gloriously sunny and blue as it can be in October. Normally, we are up a mountain or at a beach for a bit – our best French holidays are often in the Autumn – but this year we were home enjoying local sunshine.
There is still the odd fête and feast going here. ‘Fête de la châtaigne’ recently down the road, with a lunchtime meal including, yes, chestnuts.
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And the last one in my village, ‘Fête de Rencontres d’Antan’ – a celebration of ‘old times’ – where this year they cooked hams over fires, and served them with steaming pots of beans.
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My favourite local feast of the summer is the ‘barbecue géant’. Luckily for us, the field in front of the castle where all the fêtes are held is within ambling distance, so for this one it is just a matter of wandering up the lanes early enough in the late summer evening to nab a table and benches big enough to hold all the friends you have said you would meet. And remembering to pack the wine-bottle opener with the plates and cutlery. Our routine goes something like this: wives purchase meats and salads and drinks and cakes, husbands cook the meats on the row of oil-drum barbecues, and kids run round and play with the local mad inventor’s wooden pop guns and ride-on-mower-cum-train. The tricky bits are rounding up children in the dark and the wine-stagger as you get up to walk home again.
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If you are a fan of French cinema, the nearby film festival is not to be missed at the end of August. It is a feast of French films shown at a purpose-built outdoor cinema complete with talks by the directors and producers, and long afternoon discussions so beloved by the French of all things film. Actually, I kind of liked it better when the films were simply shown in the courtyard of the old school, (before the arena of seats and screen were built); the kids used to curl up in sleeping bags to sleep during the film, after we had listened to premovie bands and eaten dinner in a tent in the nearby field. What hasn’t changed ’tho, is the choice of food and bands still being offered before the main films. And we can often be found during the week-long festival feeding the kids organic quiche while we have paper cups of rosé and listen to the band. Next year we might even stay for a film!
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But the most French vision of the summer is when the committee comes to your house to collect money for the main village fête (a long, drawn-out affair in a hot tent with a serenading brass band – all a bit loud and sweaty). They always give a little gift in exchange and play you a song on the assembled accordions. It is a slightly awkward moment, but with the fête being proof that summer has arrived: the traditions, the sun on our fields, old truck with musicians on the back – these are the best French experiences.
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Feasts in Summer!

Where has the summer gone? Suddenly, it’s time to organise everything for réentrée here in France, the week when the schools begin again, the hot weather finally kicks in, and we can start to have a maybe more normal juggle of family and work, instead of a chaotic mix of kids, work (read ‘weddings’), visitors, work, and all the extra social events that go on here throughout August, and work…
Summer here means fields of sunflowers or freshly bailed hay, visiting castles, swimming in pools, outdoor concerts, village fêtes and night markets. And beaches. And moules frites! Such a French thing, mussels and chips, summer isn’t summer without them. We had mussels on both sides of the coast this year, Mediterranean coast ones while staying with friends on the Spanish Costa Brava, and Atlantic coast ones at Soccoa near St Jean-de-Luz.

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If you’re driving down the Mediterranean coast of France, be sure to make a stop at Leucate to buy big bags of oysters and mussels direct from the farms that line the salt-water lake Étang de Leuacte. (If you are on the A9 motorway, going south from Narbonne towards Spain, take Junction 40, which leads past Leucate on the D627, between the sea and the étang. If you’re coming up the other way, take Junction 41 and follow the signs for Port Leucate on the D83, which leads to the D627.)
Halfway between the village of Leucate and Port Leucate, look for the signs to turn off for the Centre Ostréïcole, and you’ll end up in a car park in front of the row of outlets – some with cafes – where you can sit and watch the flat-bottomed little boats that come in with the haul, and eat the freshest of oysters and mussels. Go for a stroll on the beach before buying at the cheapest prices you will ever find.

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On the Atlantic side, we arrived at Chez Margots in Soccoa (see post 23/03/2014) dead on lunchtime on a Friday – perfect timing for a chilled bottle of Jurançon Sec and moules frites all round, sitting outside on the terrace at this time of year, of course.
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(The postman strolled in just after us, and sat down for his lunch too).

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After an afternoon sleeping off the wine on the beach we headed inland and just over the Spanish border to our favourite little Spanish hostal, at the base of Mount Rhune – ‘La Runa’ in Basque. Here, at Col. Lizuniaga (owned by M. Ascen Irazoki Echegaray – that’s very Basque!) there are four spotless rooms that cost less than €40 a night each. Or, if you’re walking on the Grande Route or Haute Route Pyrenees, which pass directly through this valley, you can camp for free in the field. Despite a vast terrace and big dining rooms inside, only we and one other family of campers ate on Friday night. Plates full of croquettes, fresh squid rings, local ham, Spanish salad tapas, and rotisserie chicken, with fabulous Navarra rosès at amazingly cheap prices, meant we could feast freely.

For breakfast on Saturday, we walked through the kitchen (where the owner was rolling the little potato cakes she was making, and chickens were lined up for basting) and had hot chocolates, cakes, and bread for €2 a head! Then we walked straight out the door to climb Mount Rhune at a reasonably fast pace – a steep ascent of 670 metres – sweating pure rosé all the way; I wouldn’t say that I looked particularly fit and energetic. After crossing the French/Spanish border all the way up by following the stone border markers, we were treated to spectacular views of the coastline stretching north as we crossed the flank to the summit. We watched the trains clank slowly come up from the French side ( they were winched up the last bit, so I was quite glad I walked actually).

I never did get a photo of the all the fresh produce piled up outside the hostal kitchen door. This mountain of food (which had also been there on previous visits) had always puzzled me, because we had mostly dined alone (albeit cheerfully waited on for as long as we liked), so why would they need so much food? As we rounded the last corner of the descent however, through the field back towards the hotel, the reason for all the boxes of veges and the rows chickens being rotisseried in the morning became clear; with a pleasant buzz of chatter and kids running around, there were all the Spanish families out for the weekend, drinking wine and eating until late into the afternoon – we wanted to join in immediately! But we’d had our picnic on the mountain top, and besides (we reminded ourselves), we were about to hit the tapas again that evening. But not before taking a small drive further into Spain to enjoy some very distinctive Spanish Basque villages and some spectacular medieval towers and churches.

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It was a perfect 3 day break before needing to get back to parties for work, and of course, more summer parties in the village…